The marsh rabbit
is a small cottontail rabbit
The cottontail rabbits are among the 16 lagomorph species in the genus Sylvilagus, found in the Americas.In appearance, most cottontail rabbits closely resemble the wild European Rabbit...
found in marshes and swamps of coastal regions of the Eastern and Southern United States. It is a strong swimmer and found only near regions of water. It is similar in appearance to the eastern cottontail
The eastern cottontail is a New World cottontail rabbit, a member of the family Leporidae. It is one of the most common rabbit species in North America.-Distribution:...
) but is characterized by smaller ears, legs, and tail.
The scientific name Sylvilagus palustris
derives from a combination of the Latin words "silva" (forest), lagos
(hare), and palustris
(of the marsh). The marsh rabbit has commonly been associated with the group of swamp rabbits; however, this name is not a synonym and should not be confused with the larger swamp rabbit
The Swamp Rabbit is a large cottontail rabbit found in the swamps and wetlands of the Southern United States.- Appearance :...
) of Alabama through Texas. They have also often been referred to as marsh hares.
Marsh rabbits are typically smaller than eastern cottontail rabbits. Adults from the Florida peninsula typically weight around 2.2 - 2.6 lbs (1.0 - 1.2 kg) with a total length up to 17 in (43 cm). Adults from the mainland regions typically grow larger up to 3.5 lbs (1.6 kg) and upwards of 17.5 in (44 cm). The hind feet of mainland rabbits are also larger at 3.6 in (9.4 cm) compared with 3.5 in (8.9 cm) of peninsular Florida rabbits.
Marsh rabbits display a blackish brown or dark reddish dorsal surface. The belly is a dingy brownish gray in most but can also have a dull white appearance in mainland rabbits. The leading edges of the ears display small black tufts with ochre on the inside. rough hair on the dorsal side can be fringed with black hairs. The black portions of the upper parts often change to a dull grayish buff in spring and summer months, returning to a reddish or ochre color in fall, followed by darker black in the winter. Rabbits of peninsular Florida typically display darker and redder colors with a cinnamon-rufous nape, feet, and legs. Juveniles display much darker and duller colors than adults.
One feature that distinguishes marsh rabbits from swamp rabbits and cottontails is that the underside of the tail is almost never white but more brownish gray. Another curious feature observed in specimens from southern Florida is melanism
Melanism is an undue development of dark-colored pigment in the skin or its appendages, and the opposite of albinism. It is also the medical term for black jaundice.The word is deduced from the , meaning black pigment....
. These individuals exhibit completely black phenotypic coloration that does not change seasonally.
Marsh rabbits have a number of features that distinguish them from cottontails and swamp rabbits. The short ears and legs are much smaller than that of a swamp rabbit. The tail is also much reduced from the bushy tail seen in cottontails.
Three subspecies of Sylvilagus palustris
have been identified:
- Carolina Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris palustris) - marsh rabbit of mainland regions
- Florida Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris paludicola) - smaller rabbit confined to the peninsular regions of Florida.
- Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri
Sylvilagus palustris hefneri , common name Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit, is an endangered subspecies of Marsh Rabbit named after Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.-General:...
) - classified as an endangered species.
The mainland marsh rabbit, S. p. palustris
, ranges from the Dismal Swamp
* The Great Dismal Swamp located near Virginia and North Carolina* The Dismal Swamp located in Middlesex County New Jersey* The Dismal Swamp in Tasmania...
, Virginia along the eastern coast to northern sections of Florida and through the Gulf Coast into Mobile Bay
Mobile Bay is an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico, lying within the state of Alabama in the United States. Its mouth is formed by the Fort Morgan Peninsula on the eastern side and Dauphin Island, a barrier island on the western side. The Mobile River and Tensaw River empty into the northern end of the...
, Alabama. It occupies coastal lowland areas, swamps, and rivers and is rarely found more than forty miles from the coast. The Florida marsh rabbit, S. p. paludicola
, occupies the peninsular region of Florida from south of the panhandle to the upper keys. There is a region north of Miami along the east coast where this subspecies is not found. The endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit, S. p. hefneri
, is only found in the southern Florida Keys.
The marsh rabbit commonly inhabits brackish and freshwater marshes, mainly of cattails and cypress. In southern Florida, they commonly occupy sandy islands and mangrove swamps. They are strictly limited to regions with ready access to water, unlike most rabbits. Often, they will enter tidal marshes, but remain near high ground for protection. Normal hiding spots include dense thickets of magnolia, black-gum, sweet-gum, briers, and cattails.
Marsh rabbits are strictly herbivorous. Typically, they feed on leaves and bulbs of marsh plants including cattails, rushes, and grasses. They can also feed on other aquatic or marsh plants such as centella, greenbrier vine, marsh pennywort, water hyacinth, wild potato, and amaryllis.
A habit that marsh rabbits share in common with cottontail rabbits is the practice of reingestion, known as coprophagy. Rabbits will drop both hard and soft fecal pellets. These soft pellets, known as cecal pellets, are quickly eaten to be redigested and remove further nutrients. Since rabbits lack a crop displayed in ruminant
A ruminant is a mammal of the order Artiodactyla that digests plant-based food by initially softening it within the animal's first compartment of the stomach, principally through bacterial actions, then regurgitating the semi-digested mass, now known as cud, and chewing it again...
s such as cows and sheep, this process is an alternative method for extracting more nutrients from partially digested plant material.
Marsh rabbits are most active nocturnally; they spend most of the daylight hours resting in hidden areas. Frequent hiding spots include dense thickets, hollow logs, and stands of cattails and grasses. They have also been known to take advantage of the abandoned burrows of other animals. Marsh rabbits frequently make runway trails in dense vegetation along marsh edges. These trails can be identified easily as the rabbits mark active runways with fecal pellets.
One very distinguishing habit of marsh rabbits is that they walk on all fours, placing each foot down alternately like a cat. Although they can hop like all rabbits, they are more agile in dense vegetation with this walking tendency. This smaller gait
Gait is the pattern of movement of the limbs of animals, including humans, during locomotion over a solid substrate. Most animals use a variety of gaits, selecting gait based on speed, terrain, the need to maneuver, and energetic efficiency...
has been measured at 3.5-6.5 in (8.9-16.5 cm) between steps. The major characteristic of the footprint pattern not seen in other rabbits is widely spread toes.
Marsh rabbits are more aquatic than swamp rabbits as they are not known to inhabit forests. They take to water readily and are excellent swimmers. To aid in swimming, the hind legs have less fur and longer nails than typical cottontails. When not concealed in dense thickets, the rabbits will stay submerged in muddy water with only their eyes and noses exposed and ears laid back flat. When they have been spotted, they will readily take to water and swim quickly to a new hiding spot or floating vegetation. Because marsh rabbits possess very short hind legs, they typically rely on doubling and turning when running to evade predators. This often leads to easy capture by dogs. When flushed out of hiding spots, they may squeal as they escape.
Birds of prey such as the great horned owl
The Great Horned Owl, , also known as the Tiger Owl, is a large owl native to the Americas. It is an adaptable bird with a vast range and is the most widely distributed true owl in the Americas.-Description:...
and northern harrier or marsh hawk are the major predators of the rabbits. Other predators include alligators, snakes, bobcats, foxes, and coyotes.
Breeding in marsh rabbits occurs year round. Typical brood sizes are 2 to 4 young with a gestation period
For mammals the gestation period is the time in which a fetus develops, beginning with fertilization and ending at birth. The duration of this period varies between species.-Duration:...
of 30 to 37 days. Adult females produce up to 6 litters per year with an average annual production of 15 to 20 young. Nests are built from rushes, grasses, and leaves. The well-covered nest is lined with hair from the adult rabbits. They are often found in dense thickets or swampy places completely surrounded by water for protection.
In regions of the South, marsh rabbits are regularly hunted along with swamp rabbits by burning large patches of dried grass to flush them out. In some states, the marsh rabbit is considered a game animal and is regulated by the Department of Natural Resources
Many sub-national governments have a Department of Natural Resources or similarly named organization:Australia*Queensland Department of Natural Resources and MinesCanada*Natural Resources Canada*New Brunswick**New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources...
. For example, South Carolina establishes a hunting season from November 27 to March 2 with a 5 rabbit per day bag limit. In Virginia, marsh rabbit hunting is managed by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
With their diet of mainly aquatic plants, marsh rabbits are considered minor agricultural pests to most economically viable crops. In southern Florida, however, they are considered major pests of sugar cane fields.
In Georgia, the marsh rabbit is known as Pontoon. In Alabama, swamp rabbits, or cane-cutters, are often mistaken for marsh rabbits. In many regions of the Eastern U.S., muskrat
The muskrat , the only species in genus Ondatra, is a medium-sized semi-aquatic rodent native to North America, and introduced in parts of Europe, Asia, and South America. The muskrat is found in wetlands and is a very successful animal over a wide range of climates and habitats...
meat is often called by the euphemism “marsh rabbit” where it is sold in restaurants. It is often served in a stew or marinated, covered in flour, and fried.
Marsh rabbits belong to the subgenus Tapeti
in the genus Sylvilagus
consisting of cottontail rabbits. Members of this subgenus have a diploid number of 2n=38. Marsh rabbits, S. palustris
, and swamp rabbits, S. aquaticus
, share a chromosomal karyotype derived from a common ancestor. Molecular data analysis from sequencing the mitochondrial 12S ribosomal RNA
Mitochondrially encoded 12S RNA is a 959 nt long mitochondrial ribosomal RNA . In humans, 12S is encoded by the MTRNR1 gene.All animal mitochondria genomes contain 37 genes, 2 rRNA, 22 tRNA and 13 mRNA...
gene confirms that S. palustris
and S. aquaticus
are sister taxa under their subgenus. Since this gene evolves very slowly in most organisms, it is very useful in determining genetic origins of closely related species.